Friday, August 15, 2008


Over on Truthout (originally on Tom Dispatch) Prof. Andrew Bacevich has another piece about learning the right lessons from the military adventures of the Bush era. (“Is Perpetual War Our Future? Learning the Wrong Lessons from the Bush Era”,

Some thoughts come to me.

Among possible lessons that are floating around (he’ll get to his own list of substantive lessons later in the piece), Bacevich notes that ‘sustained presence’, rather than quick and massive decisive victories, will be the norm. This is not the American way of war, not since Vietnam. JFK said more than he thought that January day in ’61 when he admonished Us that We must now wage a “long twilight struggle”. We don’t do long and twilight so well; We like quick and bright and shiny; and rather than ‘struggle’ We like whomp-and-stomp, shock-and-awe.

There was a movie 30 years back or so – ‘Force Ten From Navarrone’: an American (Harrison Ford) and a Brit who’s the actual explosives guy (Edward Fox, I think) are blowing up a huge dam deep in Nazi-occupied territory. To the American, it’s crazy to send a small contingent to do it, and then he finds out as well that the Brit will rely on a small explosion to do the job. Having made their way into the deepest and lowest levels of the dam, and the charge planted by the Brit, they make their way to a ridge overlooking the dam and watch and wait. The time goes by, there’s a tiny muffled sound from somewhere and then … nothing. The Brit calmly lights his pipe; Ford fumes. Now what? The Brit explains that a bit of patience is required. After a while we see a spidery set of cracks open up along the face of the dam, down at its base, and then a trickle of water, and after a bit, increasingly, more cracks and more water until huge chunks give way under pressure of the pent-up river and the whole thing sorta dissolves into a massive flow of water.

The Brit observes the American’s disappointment with the whole proceeding. The Yank was expecting a nice big Yankee explosion with a fireball and a huge bang and lotsa smoke and debris and probably some German body parts raining down. The Brits had used a small charge, shrewdly placed to take advantage of the dynamic forces of the dam’s massive bulk pressing down upon itself and the weight of all the water held back by the dam and the river’s rushing force constantly pushing that water forward against the dam. Most of the heavy-lifting would be done by those ‘local’ forces; the royal explosives would merely get them started. We needn’t mention that had a ‘large force’ been sent in the first place – ala Yank – it would have required a division or a corps, and even then the outcome would have been verrry iffy.

Another ‘lesson’ floating around is that “hard power will be merged with soft power”, “military action with political purpose … the soldier on the ground will serve as both cop and social worker”. This idea has been around for a while; a Marine commandant of a decade or more ago gushed that ‘my Marines can do it all’. A first-class spirit but a second-class idea.

If it’s a big gap between police officer and social worker, yet it’s still a doable do. Indeed, the militarization of police – the weaponry, the armored vehicles, the black combat uniforms and boots, the shaved and polished heads – is probably not a good idea; police work requires – in Our constitutional setting – a certain but solid patience and respect for conditions and persons that a) is not useful in actual combat and b) demands a deep and practiced maturity rather than a chimpish propensity to shoot-first and let-god-sort-it-out-later. So in a way a municipal police officer is closer to a social worker than to a combat infantryman. Jurisdictions that send their officers to Blackwater training, take note.

Still, in military situations where the locals have not been goaded into Resistance, and where the enemy actors (‘troops’ only if you’re lucky) give you some breathing space, then social-bond-building is indeed useful. Of course, Iraq is too far gone for that now, and I doubt Afghanistan would ever have tolerated a ‘sustained presence’, even of social-working troops. Open 4th Generation Warfare (4GW) – asymmetrical, sudden, ever uncertain – is going to require skills more refined than a WW2 combat infantryman, but still not at all ‘social work’.

And how does one wage war ‘maturely’, how ‘sustain’ it in that sad but profoundly solid way that Lincoln sustained his war? Even if that question could be answered, it is hugely doubtful that any boot-camp or Academy could turn out Lincolns in battalion-sized numbers, and keep doing so reliably over the long haul.

Nor, I have to say, can We any longer credit that Second Wave’s inferences to the effect that the infusion of ‘women’ into the military would make it both more ‘sensitive’ and more effective. A certain set of ‘feminine’ qualities, certainly, would help in the social-working, if they were maturely seated in the individual soldier’s personality, but that’s a big If in females as well as in males. And in current American society, a very big If. And it seems that the ‘revolution’ itself is not of one mind as to whether ‘sensitivity’ is actually ‘feminine’, and if so, whether it is by ‘nature’ or by ‘social construction’. But these are still-molten doctrinal disputes among the mothers of the revolution, male as well as female, and need not detain Us here.

The quality of political leadership needs to be improved. Ah, well, yes, but … where does this problem stem from? We are now bethumped by a politics both radicalized to its polar extremes and also confined to surfaces and appearances. The ‘radical politics’ (if such are even compatible with a democratic ethos) of the late ‘60s drove the Dems to their extreme Left, catalyzing a similar Republican shift to its extreme Right, while simultaneously a telegenic agitprop politics of ‘outrage’ and ‘victimhood’ and ‘absolute demands’ made it impossible for any sober give-and-take, the meat of a mature democratic politics. Hence politicians for some decades now have not found maturity or substance to be of any professional utility; and thus too the characteristics of maturity and intelligence and seriousness and even integrity have become less notable among the Beltway elect-eds. Although there have been those throughout Our glorious history who would allow as how integrity has never found itself an office in Washington City. General Sherman, certainly, had no use for the place or its professional denizens.

Perhaps the All Volunteer Force (AVF) might be replaced by a conscripted one. There are advantages, certainly: a much larger force, the re-involvement of the American citizenry, all the people, in the matter and action of war. That can be of great utility in itself. It can also have remarkable maturational benefits for society as more and more age-cohorts get a least a basic trellis-experience and some basic capacity for self-mastery. And a common experience as well. All good indeed.

But the inroads of juvenilism and Identity-ism are deep and broad. Generations of youth, over the past four decades or so, have been raised in a general ethos of aversion to ‘maturity’ and outright hostility to any ‘commonality’ among Americans. This is a profound damage, already deeply set and far along, that has yet to be addressed among Us.

So too, while it would be a wonderful boon to young individuals and to society as a whole to provide an opportunity to ‘sacrifice’ for ‘America’ … well, I think just saying that phrase out loud indicates how badly damaged Our common weal is. Decades of ‘victimhood’ and ‘empowerment’ have loudly disparaged ‘sacrifice’ in favor of getting one’s way and one’s piece of a pie; and for far far too many youngsters ‘America’ is not the primary matrix of identity, is indeed the perpetrator of oppression against them. How any house so divided … but Lincoln saw that. And he got it from Scripture – and we dassn’t go there.

Hence, an ‘open relationship between military and society’ would be a great boon, but also a hard one to engineer.

Because, as Bacevich gets into his own acute proposals, he drives home the fact that “the nature of war is not subject to reinvention”. Our present debacle on the Eastern Front, now under threat of expansion not only by military conflict with Iran but by confrontation with a resurgent Russia (in less than a decade We have passed from the gravid possibilities of a world without Communism to the international situation of the late 18th or even 17th century, except with automatic weapons and nukes … and Our government, and We the People that should ground that government, have had more than a little to do with this development, this devolvement). Sackcloth, ashes, or prayer – anyone … ? A firm resolution to amend one’s ways and to do the right?

Rove’s witless boast that ‘we make history’ – which History, if not the original Author, has laughed to scorn – was not original with him or his ‘side’. The deconstructionist dictum that there is no objective reality or anything moving human affairs except political interest and political power … that was enshrined by a Democratic Party increasingly listing to its left, until finally the only way one could claim that anything at all was on the level was to hold one’s head in a pronounced tilt, making one look like a puzzled duck and no doubt contributing mightily to the Dems’ fear of looking ‘unmanly’ and weak.

Not that the Republican embrace of its Inner Chimp improved matters at all. Forget donkeys and elephants; We are now confronted with a stark and dispiriting choice between Ducks and Chimps. We are sore bethumped; and in a heepa trubble. And if the ducks seek to swagger a bit, and the chimps try to peel their bananas a tad more delicately, this will help Our strategic situation not at all.

The ability to strategize is another of Bacevich’s lessons-learned. Strategy requires a lot of things no longer held in high esteem in these parts: the forebearance to take any action until one has obtained clear, objective, factual information; performed comprehensive analysis of options and then analyzed each of those possible options for potential consequences; selected objectives proportionate to one’s resources and potential capacities as well as one’s needs; the refusal to be distracted by what one has determined to be irrelevant or secondary to one’s goals and objectives; sustaining an efficacious commitment to one’s plan under all manner of adversity and uncertainty.

Now, this is a lot to expect from senior officers selected from the ranks of a military drawn from a society where all of the above are considered too ‘masculine’, ‘controlling’, ‘up-tight’, ‘rational’, ‘insensitive’, ‘elitist’ … and so on. Hell, not even the politicians are like this anymore.

And this menu of skills is also vaguely familiar, no? It might conceivably serve as not a bad template for conducting one’s own affairs and life, might it not? Might actually be a parts-list for the old vessel called ‘maturity’ … although, as has been discovered in the process of trying to restore the ‘S.S. United States’, splendid liner of 1953, this country no longer has the skills to restore the vessel that it once so capably built. We are so much poorer than We were then. All around.

“The utility of armed force remains finite.” Ah, now there is a word: ‘finite’. To be limited. Since ’68 the whole push has been that ‘limits’ were for fuddy-duddies, and were the engines of oppression. There were no limits, and the with-it American could reach for the sky. Still, while a vine with no fence isn’t such a problem; a vine with no trellis cannot then be restrained by any fence, but only by a solid wall. Prison, anybody … ?

And so We have. We incarcerate a larger proportion of citizens that any Communist nation ever did. Every year, legislators who can no longer muster the courage to say Hold On A Minute, Here pass increasingly unworkable laws without any deliberation and figure that the Courts can go to the trouble of actually looking at the enacted monstrosities carefully and can take the heat for stepping up to exercise responsibility. ‘Police action and incarceration will solve everything’; how easily then We slipped down the greasy chute to ‘military action will solve everything’.

And as Our domestic laws came to permit ‘preventive’ police action, so Our foreign policy brazenly and brassily trumpeted its right to wage preventive military action. Does one need a course in map-reading to determine the course and trajectory of the ship of state? Of Our country and Our society?

He concludes by observing that the country needs not so much a bigger military as a smaller foreign policy. Self-restraint: a hallmark of maturity. Gall and wormwood to the advocates of loud and immediate ‘outrage’ and the issuance forthwith of loud and implacable demands. Bush didn’t invent this method of doing foreign policy. He just did in foreign policy what has been going on in domestic policy for decades.

Of course, now he faces – gack! – ‘limits’, not only the limits of military resources drained by a poor strategic plan, but also the limits created by other nations – and not little ones – reacting with force and determination of their own. Amazingly, a society drenched in the concept of ‘backlash’ – expanding that interesting concept to include simple uncertainty and doubt or skepticism as well as outright opposition and hostility – was not prepared for ‘blowback’ from other nations whose interests Our government had sought to bethump. If the golden opportunities of the post-Soviet ‘90s are now irretrievably gone, the golden era of a consequence-free America – foreign and domestic – is now at an end.

Summer’s almost over. And this is gonna be a tough year at school.

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